Just as the hysterical claims that the Sheffield outfit has already surpassed The Beatles in musical achievement have the paradoxical effect of making me never want to hear another track from the ‘world-beating album‘ by the Arctic Monkeys, so the assertions that David Foster Wallace is the best writer of his (our?) generation have ensured that up until now I have never read a word by the prolific American. However, the other day I came across a copy of his latest collection of stories, Oblivion, retailing at the low, low, low price of €3.99. (Such periodic stock clearances, while great for the consumer, suggest that the publishing industry is not one to enter if you want to get rich.)Anyway, I’m glad that I made the micro-investment because, on the strength of the stories in Oblivion, I think that Wallace, if not the greatest writer of our era, is at least the real deal.
Which is not to say he cannot be frustrating. The first story, “Mr. Squishy,” oscillates between the deliberations of a focus group on a prospective mass-produced confection and the increasingly unhinged meditations of the group’s facilitator, Terry Schimdt, who, in a spiral of self-loathing, both feels that his amorphous face has started to resemble that of the eponymous corporate logo and plans to go into stores and inject the aforementioned snack with botulism culture.The underlying ‘message’ of the story is one that has been a staple of American fiction since at least Sinclair Lewis – modern American capitalism can be a soul-crushing business.
What Wallace brings to the table is a fascination with the jargon of the industry in question, a dense web of acronyms and capitalised nouns that suggests that the business of marketing a high-cholesterol, high-concept, chocolate-intensive Mister Squishy-brand snack cake designed primarily for individual sale in convenience stores requires the same exhaustive preparation as a shuttle launch.
Although there is some comedy in the gap between the seriousness of the argot and the triviality of its object, after 63 pages such mimetic verisimilitude becomes a tad wearing.And yet Wallace’s linguistic inclinations (like, say, George Steiner, he can be counted on to write ‘oneiric’ where ‘dreamlike’ would do and choose ‘ludic’ over ‘playful’) can lead the reader down the oddest paths, at the end of which they can find themselves, to their uneasy surprise, in unexpected and usually sinister places. For example, ‘The Soul Is Not a Smithy,’ set in 1960, concerns a child who is a compulsive day-dreamer (who would probably be diagnosed today as suffering from ADD) whose increasingly dark fabulations about a blind girl and her lost dog distract him from the sight of his substitute teacher convulsively slashing the message ‘KILL THEM ALL’ on the blackboard. Just as the reader thinks they have grasped the trajectory of the story, lurid but comprehensible, it then segues into an equally dark but at the same time poignant reflection about the protagonist’s father, whose loathing of his job and low-grade misery is only appreciated by his son in the wake of his death.
I’ll talk some more in the next post about the writer Wallace most closely resembles (not Thomas Pynchon as the back-cover blurb would have it) and how one story seems to encapsulate or explore some of the problems facing the contemporary fiction writer who wants to “say something different.”